Neil Gaiman’s 2001 book repeats a phrase a lot – “This is a bad land for gods.” Unfortunately, he could be describing his own book. American Gods has been often described a masterpiece, so when I finally sat down and read it I was quite disappointed. The central conceit is that various pagan gods from different cultures continue to live on in America, brought over by the immigrants that believed in them. This has been done to greater effect in the children’s Percy Jackson series, however. American Gods starts out strong, however – we are introduced to Shadow, a mysterious guy who just got out of jail and finds out his wife has just died. Then he meets the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday. So far, so good. Then the novel becomes an episodic series of interactions with various mythical figures. Shadow remains one-dimensional, until we are finally granted his character background in the last 150 pages. It should not take that long.
Moreover, the whole novel suggests that there will be a war between the old gods, and the new ones, the gods of television and the Internet. But halfway through the book Wednesday tells Shadow to lie low (for the winter) in a small town straight out of a Hallmark original movie with a slight seasoning of Twin Peaks. That’s a way to kill the narrative energy.
Interspersed throughout are lengthy tangents that end up having no bearing on the plot, developing the origin of various American gods.
The novel’s main twists are predictable and very blockbuster-ish. Then a final twist in the epilogue is interesting, but totally predictable. The main problem is that this book doesn’t know what it wants to be. Neither does the protagonist. He is a big man, he does coin tricks, he is in love with his reanimated wife, and he is loyal and honorable. That’s it. Not much changes in his head.
Things gradually come together, bringing in most of the characters introduced in the exposition, but not in a way that justifies the novel’s length. Like Stephen King’s expanded edition of The Stand or Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, there are clearly sections that were not cut for lack of good editing. Expanded editions only make me wary. This is a bad book for gods. It’s too bad. It started out so well.
Featured image “Lightning Pritzerbe 01,” Mathias Krumbholz, CC BY-SA 3.0. Novel cover is fair use, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons